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GREENFIELD — As part of IndyCar’s Holmatro Safety Team, Steve Banton could be navigating both sides of the wall in the blistering hot pits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He could be on a safety truck in Toronto tasked with evaluating the seriousness of a driver’s injures.
He could be traversing the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, carrying tools.
Through it all, Banton credits running for keeping him in top shape, which allows him to not only keep an eye on IndyCar drivers and their crews, but residents of Indianapolis as a firefighter, paramedic and a CPR instructor.
“I feel like an example that leading a healthy lifestyle slows the aging process, but still being able to help others without completely slowing down by now is of the most value to me,” said Banton, an Indianapolis native who moved to Greenfield in 1995.
In 1985, Banton began his firefighting career in Washington Township, and his love for running commenced not long after he started rescuing people for a living.
“Before joining the fire service, I had never been committed to fitness, but only looked at it casually,” Banton said. “Then when the guys invited me to join their running club on the fire department – where we competed in running races of all distances, triathlons or stair climbs against other fire departments – I not only got hooked on the camaraderie of the events, but the benefits were physical, second, and mental, first.
“I could train and the roads would take me wherever, but the time training would take my mind to ‘the runner’s high,’ where I could either relax and think about nothing, or I could contemplate about something important.”
Already a certified emergency medical technician, or EMT, Banton eventually went to medic school. After becoming a certified paramedic, Banton started working in the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hosptial in Indianapolis to go along with his firefighting duties. He moved on to the ER at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and then joined the LifeLine helicopter team in 1997.
Banton landed the gig on IndyCar’s Safety Team after working them at the first Formula One race at IMS.
“After that, they said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to work with us,’” Banton said.
The Safety Team consists of 30 people, with minimum of 18 at each IndyCar event – except the Indianapolis 500, where there are more safety personnel on duty. The 18 on-duty personnel include a trauma physician, an orthopedic physician, two paramedics, 12 firefighters/EMTs and two registered nurses – all of whom average 20 years of experience in their respective field. Personnel are stationed on four safety trucks and in the pits. Banton is usually one of the two safety team members in the pits.
“I don’t complain; I don’t mind the heat,” Banton said. “We’re wearing triple-layered Nomex (flame-resistant suits). On race day, we wear hoods, helmets and gloves. It’s pretty hot on race day. It’s easy for me to get up and down pretty quick.
“I try to get an eye on at least half the pits, if not more than my half of the pits. If something big is happening on the other end of the pits, I’ll get on my way down there to help out – whether it’s because somebody got hit, somebody ran into something or there’s a fire.”
Sometimes, Banton is on the safety trucks, putting his paramedic skills to use in the front passenger seat.
“(The truck paramedic’s) job is to go up the (injured) driver and assess him as far as his level of responsiveness – Is he awake? Is he breathing? – and then we start to see what kind of injuries he may or may not have,” Banton said. “Then, we have a code system – a one, three or five – and that’s the severity of their injuries. That gets broadcasted on our frequency. All of our safety trucks respond to a set protocol.
“The second arriving truck will assist, go to the second car (in an accident) or go to the point of the impact and work its way down to where we are. The third truck drops off three of the guys to assist and the driver does a recon lap to see how the rest of the track is, and then he’ll stop and help out. The medics are expected to help the drivers on the track, the drivers or the crew members in the pits.”
During a race in 2007, Banton was working the pits when a pit crew member caught on fire in the vicinity of Sam Hornish Jr.’s car.
“That was pretty crazy. That was before we had to wear hoods and helmets. I happened to be standing close to that,” said Banton, noting that Hornish Jr. checked on the crew member through his sideview mirror before departing the pit area. “He was OK. We had to flush his eyes. He was well-protected and he didn’t have any burns.”
A few years before that at the 500, Banton had to help treat a pit crew member who had landed on his head and neck after being struck from behind by a driver’s detached left front tire.
“He had a lot of facial trauma, was unconscious and wasn’t breathing. Because his face was smashed in, we couldn’t give him our typical airway that we like to, so we had to do a ‘crike’, we had to cut his throat and stick a breathing tube in there. There was a lot of blood,” Banton said. “The serious patients, once it’s an airway, breathing or circulation problem, we’re going to stay and make sure those are restored before we move them across the wall where it’s more safe.”
Otherwise, Banton and his crew like to get their patients out of harm’s way and on the other side of the wall.
“If it’s ankle fracture, or someone can’t see because they have a foreign object or fuel or something in their eye, we’re going to get them across the wall where it’s safer so the racing and pit stops can continue,” he said. “You may say, ‘Well, he’s got bones sticking out.’ Well, it’s just an ankle. If we support his ankle while we get him across the wall, that’s the best thing for everybody. He’s going to in a safe environment, the pits can continue to operate on both sides, and we’ll still take care of him.
“Now if it’s somebody like that guy that got hit from behind with a tire and is not breathing or something like that, obviously we have to stay in play and take care of him right there. We’ll get him over the wall when it’s appropriate.”
Recently, track safety has been thrust into the national spotlight after Tony Stewart, a Columbus native and a three-time NASCAR champion, struck and killed a fellow sprint car driver who had emerged from his vehicle and was on the dirt track attempting to confront Stewart during a race in Canandaigua, New York, on Aug. 8. Stewart, who does not yet face criminal charges stemming from the incident that killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., has not raced since.
“I don’t have anything that hasn’t already been said by IndyCar, which is that we’ve always had the rule that the drivers are required to stay in their cars until our Safety Team arrives unless there’s a fire – or they face serious penalties,” Banton said. “Regarding what Tony did, only he knows whether the impact was accidental or intentional – and he might take that truth to his grave.”
Banton’s work with IndyCar has taken him to a number of places around the world (Brazil, Canada, Japan) and the U.S. (Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco, Virginia), and he’s run at many of the places he’s visited.
There’s one full-time member of IndyCar’s Safety Team, while the rest of the crew is part-time. Team members can sign up for as many races as they want, but there’s no guarantee of landing a certain race.
In addition to his duties with IndyCar, Banton works as a firefighter, paramedic and lieutenant on the Engine 4 C-shift at Indianapolis Fire Department’s Station 4, which is located on the north side of Indianapolis off 86th Street and Ditch Road. He is also a CPR instructor at Methodist and an ER paramedic at River Health Hospital in Noblesville.
Banton, who has two children – a son, Jared, who graduated from Greenfield-Central in the spring and preparing for his first semester at Indiana University, and a daughter, Laura, who is a sophomore at G-C – is grateful for the opportunities he’s come across and doesn’t plan on giving up running anytime soon.
“As the decades have ticked away and life with my family became more important, I’ve been blessed with always running,” he said. “The benefits were and are irreplaceable.”
Q: You became a firefighter in 1985 and joined the department’s running club. Why?
A: (The running club) wasn’t official, but it was just a group of guys that were training for the (Mini-Marathon). I was just trying to fit in and figured I had to take things seriously. As far as living a healthy lifestyle, if people were expecting me to save them, I was out to be pretty fit myself. I started running with the guys and they were getting ready for the Mini-Marathon. May of ’86 was my first Mini, and I was pretty much hooked after that.
Q: You’ve done triathlons as well?
A: Yeah, not like Ironman distance, but I did a couple of Olympic distance and I just did recreational ones in Cicero, Shelbyville and Eagle Creek. And sometimes we did team triathlons where I would do the running, somebody else would swim and somebody else would bike – but sometimes I would do all three.
Q: Where do you train?
A: I’ve got to be outside. I’ve got to be outside, because I just feel crazy on a treadmill. I feel like a rat in a lab or something. I like the weather. I don’t mind sweating to death. I don’t care if it’s two in the afternoon and 90 degrees, or five in the morning and 11 degrees. Most of the time these days, I’ll get up early, drive to the fire station and then I’ll run around the fire station. I’ve got three-, four- and six-mile routes that I do around the fire station. That way I get there early enough to where I’m not technically on duty yet and I can get a good workout in.
Q: If you aren’t adverse to extreme temperatures, does that make for a good translation to your line of work?
A: Yeah, and I suck down the SCBA bottles (breathing apparatus for firefighters) slower than everybody else, too. Not that I’m bragging or anything, but that’s kind of the physical benefit, too. We have to pull the hose off the engine; we’ve got to get up to the entrance. Then we have to put the mask on, turn on the SCBA bottle and then tone/charge the line, advance the hose line, do a search and rescue and put some fire out. Usually by then, we’ll come out and switch bottles. I can stay in longer and help the guys assigned to fueling or pulling walls or looking for the extension of the fire. I think my max (oxygen) is higher than it would be if I didn’t run.
Q: What sort of music do you listen to when you run?
A: It’s about half music, half audio books – about 95 percent of the time. The other five percent I don’t have anything in my ears. For audio books, I listen to crime stories and biographies about sports figures and musicians. As far as music, most of it is classic rock. Because of my kids, I try to keep up with what they listen to, too, like Imagine Dragons.